Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Apartheid Deconstruction

The Americans seem to have run into a spot of bother with these attacks on airplanes. Patting people down at airports won't stop terrorist with explosive underpants, for that you need invasive means of screening such as making informed but potentially offending assumptions about individual people in front of you (the Israeli method), or using whizbang technologies that make some folks squeamish. It's a problem, to be honest, this matter of balancing rights such as privacy vs life when the privacy will be violated always (if you're squeamish) but terrorists will be apprehended only rarely (how many of them are there, after all). Would that the world were simpler.

Balancing is of course part of life. Here:
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a major access highway to Jerusalem running through the occupied West Bank could no longer be closed to most Palestinian traffic. In a 2-to-1 decision, the court said the military overstepped its authority when it closed the road to non-Israeli cars in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising. The justices gave the military five months to come up with another means of ensuring the security of Israelis that permitted broad Palestinian use of the road.“The court was saying that you can’t reasonably find every Palestinian inhabitant to be a security risk,” said Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator for Israel Radio, in a telephone interview. “The security considerations are legitimate, but they have to find other solutions.”
Let's see if we can disentangle the various strands of this story.

First, this is not about the roadblocks in the West Bank that were making life unpleasant for Palestinians between 2001-2008, but saved lots of lives on both sides. If you look at this screen-shot I made from Google Earth, you'll see that the 443 road (I highlighted it in light blue) merely cuts across a corner of the West Bank on the way from Modi'in to Jerusalem. Of the millions of Palestinians who need the freedom to move around the West Bank, no more than thousands, perhaps a few tens of thousands, are going to use this road: the ones who live alongside it and wish to reach Ramallah faster than on their local roads.

For most of history the route taken by 443 was the main road to Jerusalem. The story in the book of Joshua about the sun standing in the Ayalon valley happened here. The Hasmoneans had a big battle with Seleucid troops whom they were trying to block from reaching Jerusalem - on this route. The Romans paved the road, and you can see sections of their pavement to this very day. The Crusaders marched to Jerusalem on this route.

It was only in the 20th century, with the advent of motorized vehicles that weren't bothered by climbs, that the main road to Jerusalem moved a few miles to the south. The present route of highway 1 makes three climbs and two descents on the way up to Jerusalem, while the ancient road climbs once. However, as highway 1 became congested in the 1970s, traffic moved naturally to the ancient route, which was paved by the British and meandered through the center of a number of villages. This wasn't politics, it was simply drivers seeking the shortest drive. There was a well-paved highway with traffic jams, and a by-road without them. In the 1980s the Israeli authorities decided to follow the public behavioiur and pave a highway that wouldn't go through the center of three or four villages. In those days such road-paving projects were happening all over the country.

Of course, in this case the road went through a corner of the West Bank, and these particular villagers were Palestinians. Whenever a highway gets paved someone's private property is lost, and this often goes through the courts - in every normal country. Here, however, the lawyers arguing the case were not out to ensure the highest compensation for their clients, but the Civil Rights brigade, who use human rights to cloak their political agenda. They'd never dream of regarding land confiscations for the new road up to Safed as a human rights issue, but will swear their only reason for arguing against plans to pave 443 is human rights.

As you can see from the next screen shot, there are seven affected villages. The state argued that they, like everyone else, would benefit from using the snazzy new road, and the court allowed the project. When the new road opened, each village had its own connecting road feeding into 443. The section of the road that goes through the West Bank is 13 kilometers long.

Just for coincidental context, here are two items from today's New York Times, both dealing with conflicts between locals and large projects. This one is from North Dakota, and this is from China. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying the paving of route 443 was an innocuous case of civil differences of opinion and confiscation of land for public purposes. The bi-national conflict really was there, and is. But it's not the reason for the road's being put there, and it cast banal considerations into highly charged terms.

Someday, if Israelis and Palestinians ever manage to agree on partition, there will be a road connecting the Palestinian West Bank and Palestinian Gaza strip. Laying down that road will require confiscation of land from Israeli farmers. Don't expect the Association of Civil Rights to come to their defense, of course, and even if they do the confiscations should still happen. National considerations are often stronger than individual ones. My understanding of the Olmert proposal of September 16th 2008 was that route 443 would remain under Israeli control (but not the villages alongside it), as a corollary to that Palestinian road.

Tragically, when the Palestinians launched the second intifada, they also began killing Israelis on route 443. Six Israelis were murdered on the road between after 2001, and also one Palestinian from Jerusalem whose car, naturally, had an Israeli license plate. Part of the Israeli response was to prevent Palestinian vehicles from using the road. This measure, along with many others, was eventually crowned with success, the second Intifada was defeated, and lives on both sides were saved. This was good, make no mistake. It also promoted the ultimate human rights.

The question is, for how long. Defensive and preventive measures that were clearly justifiable when the level of violence was high, do they remain justifiable once the violence is over? The families of the victims and the mayor of Modi'in, along with the army, would all like the measures to remain in place. The villagers want to use the highway. The supreme court has carefully accepted the position of the villagers, but has given the army five months to devise alternative security measures before opening the road to the villagers: the court recognizes that there may still be a danger, but thinks it's time to balance it.

And ACRI, those proud campaigners of human rights irrespective of politics? As their spokeswoman says: it's occupied territory. Interestingly, she doesn't suggest that the Israelis plow up the road so the villagers can go back to where they would have been had the occupation not intervened. As she sees it, since the Israelis have paved the road, the Palestinian villagers mush have access to it, but the Israelis: not.


NormanF said...

The obvious solution is to write a law ordering the Israel Supreme Court to defer to the recommendations of relevant security bodies in cases like Route 443. The Court is simply not equipped to make decisions about life and death matters on its own whim. That is why there are professionals and the Court should defer to them. Its should not try to second-guess and alter arrangements that have worked well simply because a few people are inconvenienced by them. Israel's security in short, is far too important to be left in the hands of its Supreme Court.

Avigdor said...

In 2004, two of my friends and I, freshly arrived, paid a taxi to take us from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem. It was only the second time that we were in Israel, and we assumed the route taken would circumvent the Latrun pocket. It was less of an informed assumption than ignorance.

While my friends chatted with the driver, I nervously watched what clearly were Palestinian villages on either side of the road. I didn't understand why the driver would have taken this route. It was the last days of the intifada, and there were still shootings and the occasional homicide bombing... I got paranoid. What did we really know about this driver? He was so eager to take us and charged less than other taxis. Where was he taking us?

I started asking him questions. Where are we? Why did we take this route? He told us it would take twice as long had we taken the other way. We hit a checkpoint just outside Ramallah and I remember him pointing out the roof of the Muqata in the distance.

I don't know how opening this road to Palestinian traffic will undermine security, except in a general way of enabling mobility. Most attacks didn't come from other drivers on the road, I thought, but from the surrounding areas. There are several Palestinian villages overlooking the road; some excellent choke points and sniper positions, as the road passes through higher terrain on either side, and many had been used. In 2004, according to our driver, almost no one would use the road at night.

In 2004, there was still a policy of house demolitions; if an attack occurred from one of the villages, the homes overlooking the road would be bulldozed. It was a policy that, once enforced, cut shootings to a minimum. I think house demolitions are no longer in the IDF toolbox, however.

Alissa said...

Just a note that a few of the villages on the map you use are actually Jewish villages. Only one, Bet Horon, has direct access to 443.